The SC Interview Series is an effort to highlight the work creative professionals are doing that “move the needle” in how we work and perceive the world around us. The next interview in our series features Elianna James of I Break Websites LLC. Over the years Elianna has specialized in an area many of us don’t often consider, namely the accessibility of user interfaces, websites, and employment gateways. Elianna works with a plethora of companies and organizations to ensure their websites are Section 508 compliant and accessible to the widest population. She is also a Certified ScrumMaster, once served as the President of the Rocky Mountain Human Factors & Ergonomics Society from 2011-2013, and is teaching “Universal Design for Digital Media” at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Technology, Arts & Media Program, a part of the interdisciplinary ATLAS Institute. Elianna joins Scarantino Consulting from her office in Boulder, Colorado.
Josef Scarantino: Elianna, welcome and many thanks for participating in the SC Interview Series. I’d like to begin by asking you to tell a little about yourself.
Elianna James: You could say that my core interest in accessibility began decades ago when I discovered the basic ideas of sociology. To this day I have a passionate interest in the way that people organize themselves in groups and how they work/ or fight/ or play with one another.
As I added a more technical background I quickly realized that people had very different approaches to, what was for many, new ways to learn and share information.
JS: Tell our audience, how did you get started consulting in accessibility and user testing?
EJ: I have been in tech since @ 1999 when I got a Certificate of Network Administration from CU – Boulder. My first job using that credential was on a Help Desk at Micro Motion up in Gunbarrel. We were an internal helpdesk for the company which manufactures flow meters. People would call the help desk whenever they had a computer or printer problem. It became obvious that they blamed themselves when often it was a software or hardware glitch.
After that I joined a start up in Westminster. It was the predecessor of the company now known as GHX (Global Healthcare Exchange). We all did whatever needed to be done and I served as the first person in Customer Service, the original Software Trainer and then one of the early QA Engineers. This is where I discovered that, at the time (early 2000’s), most companies did not make a practice of doing any sort of organized user research. We had developed a very pretty and intricate front end software system to track purchases of high end hospital supplies like catheters and stents. It was impressive to the marketers and executives and the other sales people at conferences. It was almost impossible for the front line personnel in purchasing departments to figure out. As I coached them to “click there, then go three columns over to the right, and drill down – drill down etc.” I understood why these people were resistant to using the product. How much easier it would have been to just fax over the order!
From there I started a career in QA testing and breaking websites using mostly manual means. After GHX I went to OCLC which is a non-profit library cooperative. The Boulder, CO group was dedicated to providing eBooks for libraries all over the country and the world. When EBSCO bought our division I stayed on, still in a QA role. After a number of years my drive to represent the end users led me first to the UX team and then to a specialized role as Accessibility SME for EBSCO.
JS: During 2011-2013 you served as President of the Rocky Mountain Human Factors & Ergonomics Society. What methods or approaches did you use to appeal to a broad spectrum of design and human factor practitioners?
EJ: The RMHFES became an outlet for my desire since childhood to organize field trips. For years I had a self assigned “job” in the chapter to dream up places to bring the group. We went to SpaceCo, an ergonomic office furniture factory in Denver, did a scavenger hunt at the Flatirons Mall based on design principles like ‘affordances’, ‘constraints’ and ‘visibility’ where we divided into teams, took pictures of design ideas in the Mall and gathered at Gordon Biersch brewery and restaurant to compare notes.
By the time I was President of the group we wanted to join forces with other design groups in the Front Range so we had some joint meetings with IDSA (Industrial Designers of America) and some of the Art schools.
JS: Many employers, particularly those contracting with the federal or state government, are required to have Section 508 compliant websites. Besides legally required compliance, what benefits do employers see when they ensure user experiences are accessible? Also, what are the biggest arguments for why accessibility should be a priority for those not required to be compliant?
EJ: One experience I had with Section 508 compliance that was very illuminative for me was while I was spending a couple of years in Massachusetts. I was the designated SME for accessibility for a project the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was doing with Oracle. The Executive Branch was on a grand effort to upgrade their HR recruiting software to be standardized across that branch of government. There are 78 departments in the Executive Branch. At that time there were 45,000 employees.
Massachusetts has a very strong set of accessibility requirements. They include Section 508, the “popular” name for the Federal accessibility regulations, but also WCAG 2.0 Level AA (which is just about to be incorporated into Section 508. They ALSO have a few other regulations that are specific to Massachusetts.
Besides the speed of the project this was the very first SaaS project the Commonwealth had attempted. Since the HR system was in the cloud any defects related to accessibility had to be corrected by the Oracle team and folded into the general SDLC.
There were a number of people including managers already employed at the Commonwealth who need and regularly use Assistive Technology (AT), like JAWS screen reader and ZoomText. One of the tasks was to test using those AT devices and establish whether there would be issues.
Since that experience I’ve had contact with PEATworks who conducted a survey of people who use AT regularly and who had issues with HR recruiting systems. It’s still a problem that is being worked on.
JS: From the perspective of the job seeker, how important is web accessibility? How widespread of a barrier is accessibility to those with disabilities, for instance?
EJ: Continuing the theme from the last question I would say that any job seeker who cannot get their resume and employment details into an online system is at an extreme disadvantage. Even though many people gripe about the HR “black hole” it is still the way the majority of employers vet their candidates.
The survey from 2015 by PEATworks showed that 46% of people with disabilities (PWD) who had tried to use an online job application said their experience was “difficult to impossible” That’s half the people who tried basically gave up before they completed the application.
“…any job seeker who cannot get their resume and employment details into an online system is at an extreme disadvantage.”
It’s unknown, because there wasn’t follow up, if those people completed their attempts to get a job using other means. The very large gap between PWD and People without Disabilities who have paid work testifies to the idea that it is hard to get, maintain and flourish in many fields.
There are poor and unreliable statistics reflecting employment rates. I have heard anywhere from only 20% of PWD are employed to 60% of PWD are employed. It’s very important to remember that there is no one standard for what constitutes a disability. Some are visual, some hearing issues, speech issues, cognitive problems, general physical disabilities of all sorts. Not to mention that there are more or less severe disabilities. Many, many disabilities are what one might term “hidden” in that there is no white cane, wheelchair, or classic facial features of Down’s syndrome to “telegraph” to the casual bypasser that the person might have a disability that needs an accommodation.
A great example of this misnomer of identification would be a person with a “handicapped” card in their vehicle who appears “normal” to another mall shopper, but really qualifies for the card because they simply cannot walk too far.
JS: With information consumption changing so rapidly with users accessing content on watches to phones to laptops, what trends have you witnessed in accessibility that technology creators should keep an eye on?
EJ: Many people do not realize that they are walking around and interacting continuously with the potential for built-in accessibility features in their iPhone, Android, Kindle tablet and more. One of the things I like to do is have people pull out their iPhones, go to Settings, then General, then Accessibility. There are about 30 settings on my iPhone 6 for accessibility that make it easier for people with visual, hearing, cognitive and interaction issues to have full use of the phone the way they want it.
JS: You mentioned that you are teaching a course in “Universal Design for Digital Media” at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Technology, Arts & Media Program, which is a part of the interdisciplinary ATLAS Institute. How did that come about and what excites you most about this opportunity?
EJ: The last question, where we talked about the built in accessibility aspects of various devices is all part of a Universal Design approach to have the accommodations thought of from the beginning of design through manufacture. I took the class in 2012 when I was gearing up to move from a straight QA job to a niche within accessibility. At that time it was all online and I missed the in-person aspects of a campus based class.
Through these years I kept in contact with Howard Kramer of CU Boulder who generally teaches the class. He has some other responsibilities this semester and generously offered to share his whole curriculum with me so I could more easily step into the role. The class was set at a 20 student limit. This was met almost immediately and I think, with the wait list, there will be 32 students in all.
It is exciting to me that many of the students opting for the class, which is listed as a “Special Topic” are Computer Science majors in their 3rd and 4th year. They are actively interested in learning more about how to do User Research with PWD, how to listen careful to what functions on a webpage, for instance, are harder to grasp using certain Assistive Technologies. We will be exploring how to write clean, semantic code that can be extracted into Accessibility APIs so that the screen readers, for instance, can translate the roles of the various page elements to the end user, whether they are accessing it by listening or via refreshable Braille.
JS: What advice would you have for those following in your footsteps who are considering a career in accessibility and user testing? Where would they start?
EJ: You need to know that almost any background will be useful. Even though the IAAP (the International Association of Accessibility Professionals) has a certification program, this is very, very new and it is unclear that there is a lot of value to it as a standalone certification. In other words if you have never worked in the field but manage to pass the test that’s great, but I personally would find it hard to hire you as a specialist. There’s just so much to know. However, anyone interested in the field should look over the materials so they would have a good idea of the scope of the industry.
For the past couple of years I’ve done some employment research, keeping track of jobs around the country that post with keywords like ‘WCAG’. I did a presentation on employment two years in a row for Accessing Higher Ground (AHG) that Howard Kramer organizes annually in Westminster, CO. The first one was about how any previous job could have some transferrable skills to an accessibility career. Last years was geared towards how job offerings are spreading throughout the US and throughout verticals (different industries). They gave me a Friday slot for the last session of the day but amazingly the room was full and people stayed on afterwards asking questions and talking.
Half of the jobs posted are for what I call “hard core” tech skills, namely good to excellent developers and senior QA people. The other half are all over the lot. Many have advocacy aspects. Truthfully, the IT roles also have advocacy and training aspects because so few people know why we are doing this (making software accessible), who we are representing and who, within any industry, has to think about these issues. So, I see jobs in HR, middle management, project managers, product development, special education, website administrators in school districts, procurement specialists and a lot of Section 508 coordinators.
If you are a Twitter fan then join the #AXSchat on Tuesdays. This is a truly international experience. I’ve met people all over Europe through tweeting about one aspect or another of accessibility. My two favorites were a session that took on the topic of online dating when one is disabled and another one where we piled on with thoughts about how to make museums accessible to all.
JS: Would you like to offer any closing thoughts to our readers?
EJ: I’m always interested in talking to people and sharing information on this topic. By its very nature this is a work of collaboration. Everyone in the organization has a role to play.
I run a Meetup in Boulder, CO called Front Range Accessibility and Inclusive Design. Justin Stockton, who is a Senior Accessibility Engineer at The Paciello Group, and I co-organize this in an effort to reach working developers and learning developers and designers of all stripes to give them information that will be useful in building their skills and their sensibilities around all their Users.
JS: Elianna, thanks again for participating in the SC Interview Series. It has been a real pleasure. For more information on Elianna’s expertise and services, contact her through I Break Websites LLC or via LinkedIn.